Last week I took the Duolingo English Test.  I’ve been a big supporter of this test for the past couple of years, but I’ve been shocked at how quickly schools around the USA have embraced it.  The test seems to have certain strengths and weaknesses, but I’m not a linguist or an assessments expert. I don’t know how valid it really is.

My full report on the test is contained in this video.  It describes the six different question types, and provides a few basic strategies, particularly for the extended writing and speaking prompts.

 

Meanwhile, my final score on the test was 150 points (out of sixty).  My score report is as follows.

Duolingo English Test Score Certificate

 

Mildly interesting news: TOEFL score recipients who use the ETS data manager now have access to one of the essays from the test. Previously, they only had access to a single spoken response.  Of course this only applies to those who use the ETS data manager.  This stuff isn’t included in paper score reports.  Previously, they only had access to a single spoken response.

I don’t know which essay and I don’t know which speaking response are passed along.

Hey, I’ve been uploading a bunch of stuff to the YouTube channel without really mentioning it here.  One of the more popular videos is the 2021 version of my guide to the independent speaking task. Check it out!

Well, ETS released a few more details about the TOEFL Essentials Test to score users (universities, mostly).  They are:

  • Section scores will be from 1 to 12 points.  The overall score will also be reported on a 1 to 12 scale.  It will be the average of the section scores.
  • The vocabulary and sentence construction stuff will be reported separately from the overall score.  Those will be called “foundational skills” and will be reported as a percentile rank.
  • The test will cost $100 to $120, depending on the country (yes, there will be a different price for each country)
  • Available in China?  Unclear.
  • Official Test prep will be available in May 2021.  It will all be online.  No book will be printed.
  • When the test launches in August it will be available one day per week.  But it will ramp up and later be available three days per week.
  • Students will get scores after six days.  Institutions will get scores at the same time.
  • The test will be only be taken online.  It will not be offered at test centers.

Okay, so this month’s collection is purely academic writing.  This stuff is the closest you will get to reading TOEFL articles outside of the TOEFL.  Don’t worry, though, I will have more random junk next month.  I promise.

Everything is from “Science News,” which I get in the mail every couple of weeks.  Here are a few highlights from the November and December issues.  I took the headlines from the print version, so they might not match what you see online.

  • Why Were Megalodon Sharks So Big?” asks questions about why some ancient sharks got so massive.  This would make a perfect integrated writing question, as it presents some theories… and then presents the challenges to them.  One of the theories is intrauterine cannibalism.  What the f–k?
  • Farming on Mars Will be Nothing Like in The Martian” is a fun article.  I mention it here because “The Martian” is a book I recommended in an earlier column.
  • Who Invented Bone Points?” is a nice long article that resembles some of the historical articles you will get in the reading section.  Lots of great vocabulary here.
  • Toads on Two Islands are Shrinking Fast” is a nice long biology article that looks a bit like what you will see in the reading section.  
  • Early American Women Hunted Game” is another article covering early human history.  It is a medium-length article.
  • A Night with Colugos” is a feature-length article, which means it is a lot longer than what you will get on the test.  But it is a lot of fun.  It is also a breezy and light read.  You’ll enjoy it.  Interestingly, I visited the island in Malaysia discussed here.  I didn’t have a great impression of it, but the article makes it look really wonderful.  Now I hope to return.

That’s all for now, but more to come in March!

Science News Magazines

There is now an ETS page about the new TOEFL Essentials test.

As I  mentioned yesterday, this is a new test that ETS will offer beginning in August.  The details we learned then were:

  • It will take 90 minutes to complete
  • It will cost about half of what the TOEFL iBT costs
  • It will cover academic as well as “conversational” English
  • It has “more tasks, but they are shorter”

We can now confirm:

  • It is adaptive (the questions change depending on the ability level of the test-taker)
  • It includes “Vocabulary Knowledge and Sentence Construction” (this sounds a bit like the TOEFL ITP)
  • It includes an unscored video statement at the end (like the Duolingo English Test)
  • The questions are written by humans, not auto-generated by software
  • It is scored by both humans and automatic raters (like the TOEFL iBT)
  • Unlimited score reports can be sent for free (yay!)
  • It includes MyBest Scores and instant reading and listening scores (like the TOEFL iBT)
  • Section scores will be from 1 to 12 points
  • It will be taken online, not at a test center
  • Registration starts in May (for tests in August)
  • Test Prep materials are forthcoming

Big news in the world of TOEFL.

This August ETS is launching a new test called “TOEFL Essentials.”  If you want to learn about the test, check out this report in Inside Higher Ed.  That report contains all of the information we currently know, but I’m doing my best to gain additional details.

A few highlights from the article are:

  • It will take 90 minutes to complete
  • It will cost about half of what the TOEFL iBT costs
  • It will cover academic as well as “conversational” English
  • It has “more tasks, but they are shorter”

All in all, this sounds somewhat similar to the “TOEFL Ladders” concept I posted about here way back in March of last year.

The test seems to be a response to  the growing popularity of the new Duolingo English Test, which has become very popular this year.  Indeed, the article actually contains some very tense words on that subject, so I encourage you to check it out.

I don’t know anything about the actual content of the test, but I have put out feelers for more details.

Developing Writing Skills for IELTS: A Researched-Based Approach” is a surprisingly weak IELTS text, considering the reputation of Rutledge, the publisher of the book.

The title calls it a “research based approach” but there isn’t much of what I would call “research” in the book.

What you get here is a description of the IELTS scoring rubrics, and a collection of sample paragraphs taken from student essays. Each sample is followed by a question like “what is the topic sentence?” or “Is the topic sentence focused and clear?” The same questions are repeated again and again, following a series of samples.  Each chapter contains different questions.

And that’s the bulk of the book. It is pretty basic stuff. There isn’t much in here about HOW to write a topic sentence, or HOW to make a topic sentence focused and clear. Indeed, there is very little instruction in the book at all. Students merely read sample paragraphs (and sometimes complete essays) and answer questions about them. Students are hungry for information about how to actually put together their essays – the more specific the better. But that specificity isn’t really found here.

On the plus side, there are a few sample essays with scores attached to them, which is something that all students like to have. There is also a decent “question bank.” I like that, but since the IELTS people are really generous with sample questions I don’t think there is a great need for more samples.

It must be noted that while the book is 276 pages, a lot of that is duplicated content. The aforementioned samples and questions are on page 21 to 110, while pages 181 to 272 seem to have the exact same content, but with answers inserted into the text.

If you are taking the TOEFL Home Edition, make sure to check your microphone.  Don’t just use the ProctorU website test, but actually make a recording and listen to it.

I often get sample answers from students that sound horrible.  They sound like they were recorded using Thomas Edison’s wax tube machine.  I can barely understand what they are saying.  The worst part is that the TOEFL raters will have the same challenge!  G-d only knows how this problem will affect the automated scoring engine used by ETS nowadays.

Internal microphones (like in your laptop) are often terrible.  If yours is bad, consider getting an external microphone to use on the test.  Just remember that you cannot use headphones.  You should use one that sits on your desk.

I’m not a microphone expert, but my favorite cheap and tiny model is this one, from Samson.

The cost of taking the TOEFL has increased in some countries.  This comes exactly six months following the last price increase.  Below you can see a table summarizing the cost of taking the test in the countries I track.  Some of the highlights include:

  • I spotted increases in: Argentina, Georgia, Guadalupe, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories, New Zealand, Thailand and Uganda. Of course there are many countries I am not tracking.
  • I spotted a price decrease in Vietnam.  
  • Switzerland remains the most expensive place to take the TOEFL ($320).
  • There are a handful of countries where the cost is still $185.
  • There are no countries on my tracker where the price is still $180 (Georgia was the last on my tracker).
  • None of the assorted service fees (score review, late registration, etc) have changed.
  • The test cost $140 when it started.
  • I am not associated with ETS.

Country

Pre August 1, 2020

August 1, 2020

February 1, 2021

Afghanistan 

$200

$220 

$220

Argentina

$195

$195

$205

Australia

$300

$300

$300

Azerbaijan

?

$195

$195

Bangladesh

$190

$200

$200

Benin

$185

$185

$185

Brazil

$215

$215

$215

Canada

$245

$245

$245

Colombia

$240

$240

$240

Congo, DR

?

$195

$195

Egypt

$180

$185

$185

Ethiopia

?

$200

$200

France

$255

$265

$265

French Polynesia

$180

$185

?

Georgia

?

$180

$185

Germany

$255

$260

$260

Ghana

$200

$220

$220

Guadalupe

$180

$185

$195

Hong Kong

$225

$245

$245

Indonesia

$205

$205

$205

Iceland

$230

$220

$220

India

$180

$185

$185

Iran

$225

$245

$245

Iraq

$195

$215

$215

Israel

?

$280

$280

Italy

$255

$270

$270

Japan

$235

$235

$245

Jordan

?

$195

$200

Kenya

$200

$220

$220

Korea

$200

$210

$210

Mexico

$180

$185

$190

Mongolia

$195

$210

$210

Morocco

?

$210

$220

Netherlands

$255

$265

$265

New Zealand

$270

$270

$275

Nigeria

$195

$195

$195

Norway

$290

$315 

$315

Pakistan

$195

$195

$195

Palestinian Territories

?

$235

$245

Peru

$210

$220

$220

Philippines

$200

$215

$215

Russia

$260

$260

$260

South Africa

$230

$230

$235

Spain

$245

$250

$250

Sweden

$270

$280

$280

Switzerland

$295

$320 (!)

$320

Tajikistan

?

$185

$185

Thailand

$195

$210

$215

Turkey

$185

$185

$185

Uganda

$195

$215

$225

United Arab Emirates

$240

$255

$255

United Kingdom

$210

$220

$220

United States

$205

$225

$225

Vietnam

$190

$220

$200

West Bank

?

$215

$215

Here’s what I mean when I say that using memorized content is a bad idea.  Check out this bad body paragraph, in response to a question like “Do you prefer to read books or to watch movies based on the books?”

“To begin with, watching movies based on books will let us know if reading the books themselves is a good idea. As we are very busy, it is a real challenge to read even one or two books in a month. If we watch movies, however, we can get an idea of which books we should read in our limited free time. My personal experience is a compelling example of what I mean. When I was young, the book “Harry Potter” seemed interesting to me, but I didn’t read it because it had too many pages. Additionally, I didn’t have enough time to finish it since I practiced basketball almost every day when I was a junior high school student.  I went to the basketball court in my neighborhood every weekend and practiced passing, shooting and dribbling with my friend, Jim, who I had known since I was in elementary school.  We practiced really hard, and, as a result, we were eventually invited to join a local team.  At the end of that year, the team won a local championship.  Had we not practiced every day, we would not have achieved such success. Several years later, a film based on the novel was released. I went to the local cinema and watched the move because it was only ninety minutes long. After I saw the film, I bought a copy of the novel because the movie showed me that it would be a good use of my limited free time.”

 

Note the stuff in bold, which is just stuff the student memorized before going to the test center.  They have inserted it into the paragraph to increase the word count and to add some slightly more complicated sentence structures.  It’s got parenthetical commas, the past perfect tense and a conditional.  Even a transitional phrase!  How nice!  Sadly, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  The grader can tell it is off-topic memorized junk.  This is an essay about books and movies, not an essay about how to win a basketball championship. 

I constantly get paragraphs that have been stretched out with irrelevant digressions like this.  Sometimes you can get away with using them, but generally it is a bad idea.  My impression is that ETS is working harder than ever nowadays to crack down on this junk.

If you see a warning at the test center saying “do not use memorized examples” this is what the warning is about.